Ask almost any person on the street what name pops to mind when they think of fitness and the odds are the late Joe Gold will top the list — at least his famous last name will. Named winner of the Fitness Business Pro Lifetime Achievement Award just weeks before his death, the namesake of the “Mecca of Bodybuilding” legacy will live on.
Joe Gold spent his lifetime in and around the lifestyle he loved. Born in 1922 in Los Angeles, Gold began working out at 12 years old and built his own home gym as a teenager.
“Joe's impact on the fitness industry is obvious, and, on the other hand, subtle. It's obvious because his name or a name that he created is on more than 1,000 health clubs throughout the world. It's subtle because Joe was not the kind of guy who tooted his own horn, and yet the equipment he designed is used in probably 10,000 to 12,000 health clubs throughout the world,” says Mike Uretz, CEO and president of World Gym, who will be on hand to accept the Lifetime Achievement Award for Gold next month at the Club Industry Show in Chicago.
“His dedication to physical fitness and healthy living inspired millions of people to train and to lead healthy lives. Most of all, Joe was a rock, and he weathered the storms of the changes in the fitness industry. Joe did not panic and Joe was able to adapt to any situation because he believed that if you provided a superior product at a reasonable price, you could never go wrong. I am happy to say he was absolutely right.”
Gold turned his youthful passion for fitness into a profession. In 1951, he and a business partner opened his first commercial gym, Ajax's Gym, in New Orleans. He also won numerous bodybuilding titles and honors leading to his membership in the Body Building Hall of Fame.
However, before his career in fitness, Gold proudly served his country. During World War II, Gold joined the Navy. When bomb blasts during the 1944 Philippines Battle of Leyte Gulf injured his hip, Gold spent months in hospitals upon the end of his active duty. Between wars — Gold also served in the Navy during the Korean conflict — he joined the merchant marines, spending 30 years sailing on commercial ships from 1948 until 1978, taking a set of weights with him each time he left port.
“I know Joe Gold was most proud of the fact that he was a decorated, wounded WWII veteran. He had a soft spot for policemen, firemen, and especially veterans,” says his long-time friend and business partner, Uretz. “He was proud of his service in the Navy during WWII, and whenever he got together with his old friends, he never tired of talking about his days at sea in the Pacific Theatre in WWII.”
Not content to stay put, Gold joined a traveling stage show starring Mae West in 1954. The touring show took Gold and several other Muscle Beach regulars to Las Vegas and beyond. From volleyball to weight lifting, Gold was the perfect image of the healthy Southern California lifestyle. So it came as no surprise that the lure of Santa Monica and Muscle Beach called him home from the road show.
In 1963 Gold proposed to the Muscle Beach Weightlifting Club an indoor gym to complement the famous outdoor area. When that plan fell through, Gold wasted no time turning the project into his own, completing Gold's Gym in 1964.
Gold sold the “Mecca of Bodybuilding” in 1970 and headed for the high seas once again with the merchant marines. Under new ownership and boosted by the mainstream attention to fitness in the mid-1970s, Gold's former gym grew to legendary status thanks to names like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbo and others who turned the Santa Monica gym into their second homes.
Uretz met Gold at his first gym in Venice in 1970 after Gold sold the gym but continued to work out there. Gold approached Uretz, who is also a lawyer, to ask him about the agreement that Gold had signed that restricted him from opening a gym anywhere in the United States for his lifetime. Uretz assured him that the contract provision was invalid. With that knowledge in hand, Gold opened his first World Gym in Santa Monica in 1977.
Several years after the first meeting between Uretz and Gold, Uretz walked into a gym in Santa Monica and found Joe Gold there as the owner. Uretz worked out in the gym, forgetting about Gold's offer of a free membership for Uretz's advice years earlier.
“The next day I brought in my money, and he threw it back at me and said, ‘Don't you remember? I told you that you would have a membership for life because of the help you gave me.’” That's the kind of guy Joe Gold was,” Uretz says.
And that is the kind of man others remember as well — someone who was one of the guys.
“Joe Gold enjoyed the [fitness] environment. He was always there with a smile on his face,” says Joe Weider, last year's Lifetime Achievement Award winner. “Joe was just happy to be around a healthy environment and that translated into great success for him and many of the top athletes that worked out in his gyms over the years.”
Gold's success really took off in the early 1980s when World Gym became the new “place to be seen.” Gold approached Uretz about capitalizing on that popularity by licensing the World Gym name for gyms, clothing and accessories.
“I told him that with the reputation he had built up over the last few years, it was a no brainer,” says Uretz. And Uretz was right. The phone rang off the hook for the items.
In 1985, Arnold Schwarzenegger further promoted the gym when he wore a World Gym sweatshirt in his movie “Running Man.” After that, the floodgates opened, and it seemed as if everyone wanted to own a World Gym or to somehow be associated with World Gym, says Uretz.
However, this success, Uretz says, was not the primary reason for opening the gym in the eyes of Joe Gold.
“As long as I knew Joe Gold, he never considered himself a visionary,” Uretz says. “He always wanted to see himself as one of the boys, and the highest accolade you could give him was that he was a beach bum who made good. Joe built World Gym for himself and for all his friends. The fact that it caught on with the entire world was entirely incidental.”
While having to scale back his time running the day-to-day operations in his later years, Gold still liked to be around the “boys” whenever he could, even while confined to a wheelchair.
“Joe was rough around the edges, but he had a heart of gold,” Uretz remembers.“He could not engage in light conversation, and he also could be brutally direct. If you asked his opinion, you had to be ready to hear it. If you wanted to know what he thought of your body and you were a bodybuilder, you better be at the top of your game because he would tell it just the way it was.
“He was the kind of person who never, ever complained about his physical disabilities, and he always made lemonade out of the lemons that life gave to him. Even in a wheelchair, Joe dominated every situation in which he found himself. I look back fondly on our 30-year relationship. I had the privilege and the honor of working out with Joe Gold, of working with Joe Gold, and of being a partner in business with Joe Gold. It was a beautiful relationship filled with trust and confidence, and although Joe could be prickly and rough, he always made the right decisions when it came to business. When it came to his friends, Joe was generous and forgiving. If you earned Joe's trust and confidence, you could do no wrong.”
In the end, Uretz says that Gold was touched and honored by being named this year's Fitness Business Pro Lifetime Achievement Award winner and remained strong until the end of his life.
“Joe left this life the way he came in — like a lion. He was a man who was always in charge of his own destiny, and he was always a straight shooter,” says Uretz. “He told me a few weeks before he passed away that he felt the end was coming, and he was perfectly ready for it. He mentioned to me that he felt his health was poor and that it was restricting him from being able to do the things that he loved to do — drive, eat at his favorite restaurants, and workout with the boys in the gym. There was never any self-pity, and in fact, he was always realistic about his life and about his eventual passing. I only hope that when my time comes, I have half the guts that Joe Gold had.”